My First Mystery
by Tony Hays, author of The Beloved Dead
We all have a first mystery. I know I do. But mine was a little close to
home. They called her the Bell Witch.
When I was a little boy, my brother, Ronnie, told me
that if you dialed a certain telephone number, you would reach the Bell Witch of
Adams, Tennessee and hear her screech. Dutifully and curious, I dialed the
number as instructed. You did hear a screech, but I think it had more to do
with telephone circuits than the supernatural. But, in Tennessee and throughout
the country, the witch was a true phenomenon. Few houses back then didnít have
a copy of the infamous Red Book, written by 19th century newspaper
editor M.V.B. Ingram, that detailed the witchís treachery, beginning in 1817.
Nearly 200 years have passed since its alleged first appearance, but the Bell
Witch story is still alive and well, evidence the movie An American Haunting
with Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek.
According to the basic story, a paranormal entity
(exhibiting poltergeist-like behavior) harassed the John Bell family of Adams,
Tennessee starting in 1817. The ďwitch,Ē frequently called Kate, was
particularly cruel to John Bell and his daughter, Betsy, being eventually
credited with causing Johnís death. It was said to slap and pinch Betsy
mercilessly. Once it caused Johnís tongue to swell so that he could neither
speak nor eat. Apparently, though, it had a soft spot for Johnís wife, Lucy,
once treating her to grapes (appearing from thin air) when she was sick. A
disembodied voice would regale visitors of happenings in the neighborhood or
repeating, word-for-word two sermons given at the same time, but miles apart.
According to Ingramís account, it was phenomena witnessed by many in the
community and was widely spoken of throughout the region. Spinoff stories told
of Andrew Jacksonís encounter with the witch. The witch remained until 1820
and the death of John Bell. It promised to return at a specific time in the
future, which the Red Book says it did. Included in Ingramís book is an
eyewitness account written by one of John Bellís sons.
All of that said, there are problems with the story.
Itís not like a complete myth. John Bell and his family were unquestionably
real, living exactly where they were alleged to have lived. A few years ago, I
took it upon myself to annotate the Red Book, tracking down as many of the
people mentioned as best I could. The people were real. Ingramís book contains
numerous interviews with people who witnessed those long ago events or whose
parents did, allegedly. But hereís the thing. While north central Tennessee
was still, truly, a frontier at the time of the events in question, there were
area newspapers. Extant copies are silent on the Bell affair. It is alleged
that the Saturday Evening Post ran an article on the story in 1849, but the
issues for that year do not exist any longer and so canít be checked. Ingramís
account did not appear until 1894. There are absolutely no corroborating
documents to support the Andrew Jackson encounter.
But the families named did exist. Their descendants
were living in the area at the time that Ingramís book was released. Were the
entire affair fabricated by Ingram, I sincerely doubt that those descendants
would all have remained unanimously silent. Somebody would surely have disputed
the account, unless they too had been hearing the story their entire lives.
It is a mystery. And is destined to remain one. All
that I can say with any certainty is that the world contains many things that we
do not understand, and most probably will never understand. This may be one of
them. Nevertheless, it remains my first mystery, and in some ways probably
spawned all those that I have written since.
For more information about Tony Hays and his novels,